This isn't a column about Ma Qing Hua, although some might interpret it that way. It's about whether certain drivers should or should not be granted a Formula 1 Super Licence.
For the record, I've no problem with either Ma or HRT successfully going through the application procedure. Having a Chinese driver in F1 can only be a good thing. If interest in the sport continues to grow in China, it's inevitable that it will produce a seriously good driver before too long.
But according to the FIA's own rules, I don't see how a driver of such limited experience can be eligible for the Super Licence.
The Formula 1 Super Licence was introduced in 1984 with one very clear objective: to ensure that all drivers participating in grands prix had proved themselves at a standard that qualifies them to be running at the elite level.
It is both a reflection of ability and achievement. It was a logical step, one that has served the sport very well.
Ma isn't the first driver whose claim to a Super Licence is debatable by any means. The 24-year-old is very inexperienced in formula cars, although he actually did a tidy enough job when he drove the HRT during Friday morning practice at Monza. He lapped 1.9 seconds off team-mate Pedro de la Rosa, which was pretty respectable for someone of his limited single-seater experience, and didn't incur the wrath of any of the regular drivers.
Ma in action at Monza © LAT
There were no overly lairy moments, save for straight-lining the first chicane, but at Monza the list of those who didn't do that at least once during the weekend is shorter than the one comprising the drivers who did.
According to those who worked with him, Ma has shown some potential, albeit in profoundly raw form. So this isn't about simply dismissing him as a complete no-hoper unfit to lace Fernando Alonso's boots, let alone share the track with him.
He's merely the starting point for a wider discussion given that he will again take to the track in Singapore on Friday.
These are the criteria for a Super Licence, as stipulated in Appendix L of the FIA International Sporting code:
5.1.1 The driver must be the holder of a current FIA International Grade A licence.
5.1.2 The driver must also satisfy at least one of the following requirements:
a) have made at least 5 starts counting for the FIA Formula One World Championship for Drivers the previous year, or at least 15 starts within the previous 3 years.
b) have previously held the Super Licence and have been the regular test driver with an F1 World Championship team for the previous year.
c) have been classified, within the previous 2 years, in the first 3 of the final classification of: the F2 Championship, or the International F3 Trophy, or the GP2 Series, or the GP2 Asia Series or the Japanese F/Nippon Championship.
d) have been classified in the first 4 of the final classification of the IndyCar IRL series within the previous 2 years.
e) be the current champion of one of the following:
- Formula 3 Euro Series
- The principal national F3 championships of: Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Spain
- World Series F/Renault V6
N.B.: the title of Champion is considered valid for 12 months from the last race of the relevant series of championship season.
Ma competed in A1 GP in 2006 © LAT
f) be judged by the FIA to have consistently demonstrated outstanding ability in single-seater formula cars, but with no opportunity to qualify under any of c) to e) above. In this case, the F1 team concerned must show that the applicant has driven at least 300km in a current Formula One car consistently at racing speeds, over a maximum period of 2 days, completed not more than 90 days prior to the application and certified by the ASN of the country in which the test took place.
Ma's record in serious single-seater championships is very patchy. As the above regulation stipulates, it's form in formula car racing that is taken into account, so what follows is key to his eligibility.
April 9 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Shanghai - 24th April 10 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Shanghai - 23rd May 20 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Shanghai - 5th May 22 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Shanghai - retired June 25 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Shanghai - 9th June 26 2005, Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Sepang - 9th October 23 2005, F3000 Italia, Misano - 11th April 2 2006, A1GP sprint race, Shanghai - 17th May 27 2006 Formula Renault NEC, Nurburgring - 11th May 28 2006, Formula Renault NEC, Nurburgring - disqualified (16th) June 5 2006, Formula Renault NEC, Zandvoort - 17th June 5 2006, Formula Renault NEC, Zandvoort - 13th July 1 2006, Formula Renault NEC, Oschersleben - 16th July 2 2006, Formula Renault NEC, Oschersleben - 15th July 27 2008, Spanish F3, Valencia - 15th (9th in class) July 27 2008, Spanish F3, Valencia - 12th (7th in class) August 24 2008, Spanish F3, Valencia - 12th (5th in class) September 21 2008, Spanish F3, Magny-Cours - 15th (6th in class) September 21 2008, Spanish F3, Magny-Cours - 8th (3rd in class) September 27 2008, Spanish F3, Valencia - 22nd (12th in class) September 28 2008, Spanish F3, Valencia - 14th (6th in class) October 18 2008, Spanish F3, Jerez - 9th (4th in class) October 19 2008, Spanish F3, Jerez - 7th (2nd in class) November 1 2008, Spanish F3, Barcelona - retired November 2 2008, Spanish F3, Barcelona - 14th (8th in class) September 20 2009, British F3, Brands Hatch - 16th (4th in class) September 20 2009, British F3, Brands Hatch - Retired October 3 2010, Superleague, Ordos - 12th October 3 2010, Superleague, Ordos - 13th
Ma simply hasn't had the chance to prove himself worthy of a Super Licence, but just because he hasn't had the opportunity is no reason to give him a free pass.
His results show progress in Spanish F3's class B and it might well be that had he continued for a few years, he would have built a decent CV for himself. And that's what he should be doing now, rather than attempting to climb a near-vertical learning curve with Friday practice outings.
Kimi Raikkonen in Formula Renault 2000 © LAT
And please don't cite Kimi Raikkonen as a precedent, for while he was fresh out of Formula Renault he had just dominated the UK championship, so could be considered to have been consistently outstanding, and completed an extensive testing programme with Sauber.
Ma was racing, successfully, in the 1600cc class of Chinese touring cars last year and if he has serious F1 aspirations, he would be far better served competing in a category such as Formula 3 or GP3 to prepare himself for the top level.
And if he doesn't have the funding to do that, as with so many other drivers whose careers never gain momentum, then he has no business doing it as a Friday driver at the elite level.
Presumably, it is hoped that the exposure he gains from this will allow him to raise the money to race regularly, either in F1 or at the level below.
This is not to say that the FIA did not seriously consider his application before granting it, with Charlie Whiting, Jacques Berger and four members of the F1 Commission looking closely at his record.
An FIA spokesperson said: "All the people that were involved in the checking of the Super Licence, the members of the F1 Commission, unanimously felt after looking at all the information that Ma Qing Hua does comply with the requirements of Article 5.1.2 (f)."
Ma did indeed complete the requisite mileage at Silverstone and it seems that his progress relative to his starting point was taken into account.
The principle of taking every case on its merits is acceptable, but given that the FIA writes its own rules on Super Licences, why not write them in a way that reflects that approach? For Ma hasn't even been inconsistently outstanding in single-seaters, let alone consistently so.
If the FIA doesn't want to take achievement into account, then remove that line from the rules and replace it with a catch-all about an applicant having to prove a basic level of competence and safety behind the wheel. Then let the 107 per cent rule ensure that no one who is too slow is able to start a race.
I don't doubt Ma's sincerity in his ambition to be an F1 driver. He has spent a lot of time doing simulator work and testing GP2/Formula Renault 3.5 machinery in preparation, and that is laudable.
Valtteri Bottas © LAT
When I asked him about his readiness to drive at Monza, he answered the questions confidently and honestly and nothing I saw there suggested that he was fundamentally unsafe. But, I don't see the paragraph in the rules that takes any of that into account.
There will always be some drivers who don't automatically tick the boxes for a Super Licence, but that is why the line that a driver who has "consistently demonstrated outstanding ability in single-seater formula cars" is in there.
Many of the drivers currently on the grid would have had to qualify on such a basis, having not finished high up enough in any of the designated championships, and that is perfectly acceptable.
Friday running on F1 weekends is ideal for a proven up-and-comer like Valtteri Bottas, but it's not for training very green drivers. That's what the junior categories are for.
If Ma is eligible, then pretty much anyone who has done three dozen single-seater races with negligible success is and you might as well open up F1 to holders of the International A licence (needed for categories like GP2).
Or perhaps this is just another consequence of the limited opportunities for rookie drivers to test, particularly with so many teams undermining the whole idea of the young driver test this year.
Either way, good luck to Ma Qing Hua this weekend.
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